Updated: Jul 31
Testimony submitted by
Mark L. Clifford
President, Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation
Thank you for inviting me to share my perspective on the many political prisoners in Hong Kong. It is a subject close to my heart and my experience. Sadly, in the new Hong Kong, a simple “thank you” for your interest could be construed as “collusion” with a foreign power and put the speaker at risk of being charged under Hong Kong’s National Security Law.
Freedom of the press is no longer guaranteed in Hong Kong. The clampdown on media freedom, and specifically the destruction of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, show in microcosm how civil and political rights have been dismantled.
I was proud to be part of Apple Daily, the flagship publication of the Next Digital media group and a leading voice for democracy in Hong Kong with some 1000 employees in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
After a decades-long career in Hong Kong, holding a variety of senior positions in journalism, I served an independent non-executive director of Next Digital Ltd., Apple Daily’s owner, from May 2018 until September 2021.
The end of press freedom in Hong Kong came in June 2021, when more than 500 armed police marched into the Apple Daily newsroom, jailing senior journalists. The company’s founder and controlling shareholder, Jimmy Lai, had already been jailed on manufactured charges since December 2020. Subsequent government actions made it impossible for the company to pay its bills, including the salaries for our journalists.
Jimmy Lai has been in jail since December 31, 2020. He is kept in solitary confinement and is ritually manacled for his court appearances: disgraceful treatment for a 75-year-old man who has always preached non-violence and whose only “crime” has been the thousands of articles he has written in defense of freedom and democracy. He bears his imprisonment with grace and dignity, having accepted that it is his fate to be held captive for his beliefs.
As of May 2023, Hong Kong holds more than 1,400 political prisoners, including high-profile individuals who were active in the pro-democracy movement. In addition to Lai, they include Joshua Wong, Lee Cheuk-yan, and Gwyneth Ho. Securing the release of these and other political prisoners should be a top priority for both the Biden administration and for Congress.
My former Apple Daily colleagues also deserve support and advocacy. They have been imprisoned for nearly two years. Why am I not there with them? I just happened to be in the U.S. visiting family when the arrests were made. All the directors who were in Hong Kong at the time were arrested. I have never been able to return to Hong Kong, my home for 28 years.
Every political prisoner is an affront to decency and justice; but when journalists are taken away, it destroys people’s ability to monitor the operations of their government.
Lai, if he is convicted, faces life in prison. The other six journalists from Apple Daily have, under duress, expressed a willingness to plead guilty. But they are still being held hostage, presumably so they can be pressured to testify against their former boss, too, when his trial is held.
Those six include Cheung Kim Hung, the former chief executive officer; editor in chief Ryan Law; Lam Man-chung, executive editor; Chan Pui-man, associate publisher and news editor; Yeung Chin-kee, editorial writer; and Fung Wai-kong, the Apple Daily managing editor and also an editorial writer. He had quit the paper but was arrested at the airport while trying to fly to London in June 2021.
All of the Apple Daily journalists face life in prison on charges including “conspiracy to commit collusion with a foreign country or with external elements” and “conspiracy to publish a seditious publication.” These charges are obviously bogus. They were just doing journalism.
Imagine if the publisher of the Washington Post and six of the newspaper’s top journalists were jailed merely for publishing the news. It’s the same situation.
The arrest of journalists in Hong Kong is particularly shocking because the city was long a beacon for freedom. China promised in an international treaty (the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration) and the city’s mini-constitution (the Basic Law) to keep Hong Kong’s longstanding liberties intact. The city’s destruction at the hands of the Communist Party in China should be a warning to people everywhere that freedom is fragile and at risk.
I would like to suggest that the members of this Commission consider the following recommendations to more effectively advocate for the release of political prisoners in Hong Kong:
Develop a mechanism between Congress and the executive branch to press for the release of all political prisoners in Hong Kong. Congress should mandate a report from the Department of State outlining its actions to promote the release of political prisoners in Hong Kong. In addition, Congress should hold regular meetings with executive branch staff who can provide updates on political prisoners’ well-being, the steps being taken to secure their release, and plans for future advocacy.
Encourage Members of Congress to “adopt” Hong Kong political prisoners. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in conjunction with Amnesty International and the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, operates the “Defending Freedoms Project,” which helps draw attention to human rights abuses around the world. The project encourages Members of Congress to advocate on behalf of prisoners of conscience by providing them with information about prisoners and their families and practical ideas for raising awareness in Congress, at the State Department, and with foreign governments. Currently there are no adopted prisoners from Hong Kong. The CECC and the project’s organizers should encourage an increased focus on the more than 1,400 political prisoners being held in Hong Kong.
Strengthen and streamline the Defending Freedoms Project to improve outcomes in political prisoner advocacy. The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission should consider recommending Congressional offices to submit an annual report detailing the steps they took to support the political prisoners they adopted. They should also be routinely providing Member’s offices with a list of political prisoners who are eligible for adoption. The Commission can also broaden their outreach by improving resources to constituents with family members or friends who may be eligible for adoption on how to craft effective applications to members.